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It’s a common refrain for opponents of Chula Vista’s Proposition G: Voting “Yes” on the initiative will ban union workers from all public works contracts.

With some variability, that assertion has appeared at election forums and on thousands of mailers to voters, campaign websites, television ads and the ballot argument against Proposition G, which went to registered voters and will appear at the polls to enlighten the uninformed.

The slogan is purposefully straightforward and a rallying cry for labor, but it doesn’t reflect the actual language of the proposed ordinance or the absolute outcome if it’s approved.

So here’s an explanation of why opponents are making that bold speculation and why supporters dismiss it.

Proposition G has made Chula Vista the hotbed of a fierce debate between organized labor and business interests over lucrative public works contracts and project labor agreements.

A project labor agreement generally refers to a pact between a government and labor unions on public works contracts. In exchange for requiring contractors to pay into union benefit plans or hire workers through union hiring halls, labor makes concessions like promising to prevent costly strikes.

Labor groups support the pacts because they guarantee unions will receive some type of reward no matter who government awards the contract to. Without the agreements, contracts go to the lowest bidder and there’s no guarantee that the union will get a piece of the pie.

If approved by voters on Tuesday, Proposition G would prohibit the city of Chula Vista from using project labor agreements for public works projects. Proponents argue that doing this would ensure that construction contractors and workers vying for the city’s money will be treated equally.

But the proposition’s opponents, led by the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, argue that it would have a much broader and possibly illegal effect on the city’s affairs: It would ban union workers from all public works contracts.

The Labor Council bases that conclusion on its interpretation of a line in the proposed ordinance that says the city can’t pay anything for a contract that “contains a requirement that a contracting party … be required to make payments on behalf of employees to union benefit plans or other trust funds.”

The Labor Council argues that the city could broadly interpret that passage to ban paying a contractor that uses city money to pay for union workers and their benefits. Since every union’s collective bargaining agreement requires contractors to pay into a benefits plan, the ordinance could indirectly undermine those agreements and ban contractors from using union workers, Proposition G opponents say.

“When the City hires a union company, they are funding (in part) the union contract,” said Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the Labor Council, in an e-mail. “This is prohibited by the ordinance.”

Proposition G’s supporters, amassed around the San Diego chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, call the Labor Council’s assertion absurd. That’s neither the intent of the ordinance nor how anyone would interpret it, they argue.

To start, the ordinance explicitly says, “nothing in this [ordinance] shall be construed as prohibiting private parties covered by this provision from entering into individual collective bargaining relationships.” That means the ordinance won’t stop a contractor from signing a collective bargaining agreement, and presumably, follow through on that agreement and pay for union workers and their benefits on any projects, public or private.

There’s also no precedent to justify the Labor Council’s concern.

It’s speculating what could happen without pointing to examples of what has happened elsewhere. Ordinances that ban project labor agreements are new to California but they haven’t been proven to “ban” union workers altogether. Orange County, for example, passed an ordinance with similar language about union benefits last year.

Orange County public works officials also said they don’t track whether or not projects awarded since the county passed its ordinance have used union workers. The county doesn’t ask bidders for that information, and as far as awarding the contract is concerned, it’s irrelevant whether the contractor uses union or nonunion workers.

“It’s not really information that we seek out,” said Rick Francis, chief of staff for Supervisor John Moorlach, who spearheaded Orange County’s ordinance. “But it would have come to the forefront, I imagine, if the union shop was denied.”

It’s also unlikely that Chula Vista, or any government for that matter, would openly implement the ordinance as the Labor Council has interpreted it, because the city could be risking a costly discrimination lawsuit.

As for Chula Vista’s city attorney, whose impartial analysis has been cited by both opponents of Proposition G and its supporters, well, the office didn’t return phone messages seeking further comment on the dispute.

The impartial analysis explained the impact of Proposition G like this:

While the Measure does not prevent private parties from entering into collective bargaining agreements with labor organizations, it does prohibit the City from imposing a collective bargaining agreement through the way it issues construction bids or signs contracts with public works construction contractors.

Again, it’s unclear from that language whether the city would be prohibited from paying a contractor that then uses city money to pay for union workers and their benefits.

But what do you think? Is the Labor Council’s concern justified, absurd or somewhere in between? Let me know what you think by sending an e-mail to keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or by commenting on this post. Depending on reader response, I’ll follow up with another blog post summarizing the reactions.

— KEEGAN KYLE

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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